UCL Hebrew & Jewish Studies


50th Anniversary Celebration

The 2018 academic session marks 50 years since UCL elevated its traditional study of Hebrew (established in 1826) into the independent Department of Hebrew and Jewish Studies that we all know today.

2018 also marks the 10-year anniversary of the passing of John Klier, professor of Eastern European Jewish history and Head of Department between 1994 and 2002.

In order to memorialise these two major anniversaries, the Department held a commemorative evening on 7 February 2018. The event drew around 150 attendees, consisting of students, staff, alumni, and friends of the Department.

photo of Prof Sacha Stern speaking at an HJS event
Sacha Stern opened the event with an overview of many of the features that make the Department unique, from the IJS (Institute of Jewish Studies) whose public lecture series and conferences many newsletter readers regularly attend, to our varied research which spans everything from ancient Babylonian medicine to the Arab-Israeli conflict, to our wonderful community of students and alumni.

Prof Ada Rapoport-Albert addressing an audience
Ada Rapoport-Albert painted a riveting picture of the Department in the 1960s and 1970s, describing it as a uniquely eccentric place (much as it remains today!). Her recollections included stories about Chimen Abramsky, Head of Department in the 1970s and 1980s, who would bring homemade fishcakes to conferences rather than using UCL catering services, and of the Departmental secretary who knew all of the correct official forms of address including the difference between a Duke and an Earl.

Prof David Ruderman gesturing while speaking to audience
David Ruderman, Joseph Meyerhoff Professor of Modern Jewish History at the University of Pennsylvania and longstanding associate of the Department, gave us a fascinating keynote speech in which he explored the work of Hyman Hurwitz, UCL’s first professor of Hebrew who joined the university soon after it was founded in 1826.  

One of the things that makes the Department so special is our fantastic alumni, such as Richard Bolchover, a student in the Department  from 1979 to 1983 who graduated with a BA in Hebrew Literature and Jewish History and has maintained close links with us ever since. He provided us with a spirited overview of his experiences as a Hebrew and Jewish Studies undergraduate in the early 1980s, noting that at the time, the Department was singled out in the national university admissions handbook for topping the charts in three distinct areas: ‘highest staff-student ratio’ (little has changed since then!), ‘highest dropout rate’, and ‘highest number of fails’ (I am happy to report that these are no longer the case!).

Rachel Weston playing a keyboard and singing
Another distinctive aspect of life in the Department is our vibrant community of Continuing Education (non-degree) students. Rachel Weston is an internationally renowned professional Yiddish singer who attended Yiddish courses with us as a Continuing Education student and performed the music for the event. Rachel highlighted the rich and varied nature of the Yiddish song repertoire with a wordless niggun, a folksong ultimately derived from an Irish source, and a socialist song translated from Catalan.

Philip Alexander, Professor of Postbiblical Jewish Literature at the University of Manchester and long-time friend and associate of the Department, gave the second keynote address of the evening. He provided a rousing overview of the last 50 years of Jewish Studies in the UK, and of the Department’s role in the development of the field.

An important portion of the event was dedicated to the memory of John Klier, and we were honoured that John’s wife Helen and his children Sophia and Sebastian were there to mark it with us. Rachel Weston opened the memorial with a Yiddish song performance in tribute to John. Lia Kahn-Zajtmann and Emma Harris, HJS alumni who ran the Departmental office for many years, gave a moving homage to John including recollections of his kind manner, his generous and caring attitude to students, and his magical ability to cultivate plants (some of which are still flourishing in various Departmental offices around UCL). François Guesnet concluded the memorial with a tribute to John’s extraordinary academic legacy and the centrality of his research on Eastern European Jewish history.

In addition to HJS colleagues, alumni, and friends from other universities, we were also very fortunate to be joined by Anthony Smith, UCL Vice Provost (Education and Student Affairs), who spoke about the Department’s place within the wider UCL context, and by Stella Bruzzi, Dean of the UCL Arts and Humanities Faculty, who delivered the closing address.

The evening’s programme was followed by a reception where there was an opportunity to catch up with the wider HJS community. I feel very privileged to have been able to celebrate with friends and colleagues, to meet so many alumni, and to hear about their experiences as students in the Department.

photo of crowded reception room
photo of the event program
two men speaking

We are grateful to our friends and supporters who made the event possible with their generous donations, as well as to all the Departmental staff, students, and speakers who contributed to it with their time and expertise. We are also very grateful to the UCL Arts and Humanities Faculty for filming and photographing the event.

We look forward to seeing you at the Department’s 100th anniversary celebration!

(Lily Kahn, Purim 2018 Departmental Newsletter)